Election preview: Mexico

Psephologists don’t get a lot of practice when it comes to Mexico, with presidential terms of six years. (There are also state elections and mid-term congressional elections, but it’s hard to find much coverage of them in English.)

Fortunately it has a simple electoral system, although a very bad one: voting is a single first-past-the-post ballot. That wouldn’t matter in a rigid two-party system, but in modern times there have always been three serious candidates: left, centre-right and PRI (more about them shortly). Not since 1988 has a president been elected with majority support.

Presidents are limited to a single term, so a winning party presents a succession of new faces. Conversely, a party with a losing record has more experience to draw on.

That’s the case this time, with the overwhelming favorite being the left’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at age 64 making his third attempt at the job. There seems to be a widespread sense that since no-one else has made a success of it lately it’s time to give the left a try.

For many years Mexico was run substantially as a one-party state by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), representing a nominally left-wing nationalism but in fact devoted only to itself as the vehicle of the governing class. In the 1980s, when it embraced more free-market policies, a number of its more leftist members broke away to form the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

The PRI’s other rival was the centre-right National Action Party (PAN), which started to make up ground as the country democratised in the 1990s, and finally won the presidency in 2000. In 2006 it narrowly held on, with a margin of just 244,000 votes against the PRD’s López Obrador.

But the PAN rapidly lost popularity due to the carnage of the drug war in the country’s north. In 2012 its candidate could only manage third place, with 25.4%. Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI was the winner with 38.2%, while López Obrador was again runner-up on 31.6%.

Peña Nieto has also not been a success. His promises to end the drug war have not been met – 120 candidates are said to have been killed since last September – and the economy is in poor shape. Opinion polls show the PRI’s candidate this time, José Antonio Meade, registering only about 20%, which would be a historic low for the party. (His coalition also includes the Greens and the centrist New Alliance Party.)

The centre-right is not doing much better, even though the PAN has somewhat surprisingly made common cause with the PRD. Its candidate, Ricardo Anaya, is polling in the high 20s. Well clear of both, with support approaching 50%, is López Obrador, now running with his own party, MORENA, and a coalition called “Together We’ll Make History.”

And so on Sunday they will, and with any luck Mexico’s corrupt political establishment will get a much-needed shakeup.

With that level of support, it’s highly likely that López Obrador’s coalition will also win a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of congress. (As is the norm in Latin America, there is strict separation of powers on the United States model.) Voting there is first-past-the-post in 300 single-member constituencies, with a further 200 elected by proportional representation.



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